This notion has been circling around the comments here today, and Josh, for my money, just nailed it:
McCain's moral cowardice has been one of the subtexts of this campaign ever since he wound up the nomination and turned his attention to Barack Obama. But I did not realize it would reveal itself in such a physical dimension.
The tell came this week as McCain unearthed the Ayers story which, for whatever its merits, was fully aired months ago and has no clear relation to the particulars of October other than McCain's collapsing poll numbers. He's on it. Palin's on it. He's releasing slashing new TV ads like this one. Both of them are ginning their crowds up into spiraling gyres of right-wing delirium -- a ready-made Lord of the Flies (and let's admit that's a gentle allusion, given the tone of these barnburners) if Obama happened into one of the auditoriums at the wrong moment.
He ever swaggered on for a couple days about how he was going to 'take the gloves off' when he met up with Obama in Nashville. But when the two of them were there in each others physical presence ... nothing. By a myriad of gestures and reactions Obama owned him.
Nor is it a matter of shifting off the tactics, because as soon as McCain made his hasty retreat from the stage at Debate #2 he was right back at it. In every other aspect of life, high and low, refined and unlovely, we have a word for that kind of behavior: cowardice.
And now Obama can lightly taunt McCain with that very cowardice, his inability to just say it to his face. And if my take on the inner workings of McCain's mind at the moment is right that should simply unhinge him even more.
Dems have bought into this idea of "showing toughness" or "getting angry" in order to communicate to voters that they aren't chumps. I've never liked people that felt the need to tell me how big and bad they were. I don't much care about George Bush bellowing into a bullhorn at the ruins of the WTC, when over a half-decade later Osama is still at large.
Frankly, I've always believed that the quickest way to show you're a chump is to run around telling everyone about that aren't one. You want to prove to the American people that you aren't shook? Don't talk them to death. Get in the ring and kick the other guys ass. It's that simple. Screw all this talk about who's tougher than who. Here is what I know: McCain will talk that shit about Ayers and brag about taking the gloves off. He will send his wife and Sarah Palin out to do his dirty work. But when faced with the man who he believes "palls around with terrorist" he played his position.
Don't let these people fool you. Come November, the only tough guy will be the one left standing.
UPDATE: Joe Biden knows what time it is:
"All of the things they said about Barack Obama in the TV, on the TV, at their rallies, and now on YouTube ... John McCain could not bring himself to look Barack Obama in the eye and say the same things to him," Biden said this morning. "In my neighborhood, when you've got something to say to a guy, you look him in the eye and you say it to him."